A tense situation persists for the 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel since November 12. Despite it being the ninth day of their ordeal, authorities on Monday are still grappling to devise effective rescue strategies, leaving the fate of the stranded individuals in a precarious balance between hope and despair.
As delays continue, discussions have begun to circulate about the potential man-made nature of this catastrophe, raising questions about Government officials’ negligence and a lack of consideration for basic scientific principles in executing infrastructure projects in the vulnerable Himalayan region.
Amid the challenges, there is a glimmer of hope, as international tunnelling expert Arnold Dix has arrived at the disaster site to assess the ongoing rescue efforts. Dix, who leads the Geneva-based International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, brings his expertise to contribute to the rescue mission.
Rescuers on Monday pushed through a six-inch-wide pipeline through the rubble of the collapsed Silkyara tunnel, a breakthrough that will help them supply larger quantities of food and possibly allow live visuals of the trapped workers.
So far, a four-inch existing tube was being used to supply oxygen and items like dry fruit and medicines into the section of the tunnel beyond the rubble of the collapsed portion of the under-construction tunnel on the Char Dham route in Uttarakhand.
As the rescue operations unfold, experts are raising concerns about the Government’s oversight during the planning and initiation of this project. Criticisms include questions about the project’s approval despite concerns about fragile rock strata and the absence of an escape tunnel in the Silkyara project. This has led to speculation about whether due diligence was exercised before the project’s implementation.
The 4,531 metre long Silkyara tunnel being constructed under the Radi Pass area is to join the Gangotri and Yamunotri axis at a cost of `853.79 crore under the ambitious Char Dham all-weather road project. Geologists, scientists, and environmentalists have been asserting that landslides have increased along the roads since the commencement of the all-weather road project.
Founder of Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO) and Padma Bhushan recipient Anil Prakash Joshi said the Silkyara incident appears to be a lapse by the construction company.
The work in the mountains is slower and different than work in the plains. It is necessary to consider the geological features of the fragile Himalayas and climate change while taking up infrastructure development.
He said construction work in the mountains is being done just like the work in the plains and this must be looked into. “We need infrastructure development in our mountains but it has to factor in the geological aspect of the terrain and the impact of climate change which is now a reality,” Joshi said.
He said sustainable development has to keep science at the heart of all planning and execution.
MPS Bisht, Geologist at HNB Garhwal Central University, said whenever taking up such massive engineering work, it is of vital importance to conduct thorough geotechnical and geophysical mapping of the specific rock on which the tunnel is to be constructed. The exercise is a must before initiating any infrastructure project in the mountains. While the work is in progress, one must consistently uphold and monitor the safety measures.
“The rock conditions vary so geophysical mapping gives details of the rock quality across the mountain. The load-bearing capacity of the mountain rocks is also to be looked at before taking up such projects. For sustainable development, the prescribed checks and set norms have to be strictly followed to avoid any loss in the future,” Bisht said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a telephonic conversation with Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Monday. The PM sought information about the current status of the rescue operation. Now, the authorities are focusing on six options to rescue the stranded workers.
National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) director Anshu Manish Khalkho called it the “first breakthrough” at the site. “We have sent the pipe 53 metres to the other side of the rubble and the trapped workers can hear and experience us,” he said.
“First achievement, big achievement. The next step is the more vital one and the most important — that is to get them out intact, happy,” his colleague Col Deepak Patil said.
Drones and robots from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have also been brought to the site to look into the possibility of other escape routes for the trapped men.
Rescue workers were yet to resume the horizontal boring through the debris after a boulder appeared to block the progress of the heavy-duty auger machine earlier this week. But an official statement said this was scheduled to begin in the evening.
The first machine for construction of a vertical rescue shaft — possibly around 80-metre deep — by drilling from near the hilltop has also reached the tunnel. A road to the hilltop has been laid, and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) is arranging for more equipment, the statement said.